Playoffs would pay off for college football

January 04, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TEMPE, ARIZ. — Here were the potential brackets for an eight-team playoff:

No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 8 Texas A&M.

No. 4 Kansas State vs. No. 5 Arizona.

No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 UCLA.

No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 7 Florida.

The four major bowls could have served as the quarterfinals, followed by a Final Four and a true national championship game.

Which schools would have gotten shafted?

No. 9 Wisconsin, which defeated UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 38-31. And No. 10 Tulane, which finished 12-0, but plays in Conference USA against opponents like Army.

College football would have survived.

No, college football would have thrived, commanding the national stage for three weeks instead of the one that -- under the current format -- actually seems too long.

Bring on a playoff.

Would it diminish the regular season? Not if Notre Dame joins the Big Ten and teams in super conferences fight for automatic bids.

Would it create too many games? Not if the season started a week later -- so long, Kickoff and Pigskin classics -- and the result was only one more contest.

The minor bowls would scream. The Wisconsins of the world would scream. But the system would be much fairer than it is now.

Alas, there won't be a playoff until at least 2002, after the first four-year segment of the Bowl Championship Series contract expires.

The college presidents might never approve a 14-game schedule, citing the mental and physical strain on the players. Yet, the college basketball season runs from early November to late March, and no one seems too concerned.

The BCS accomplished its mission this season, pitting No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Florida State for the national championship in tonight's Fiesta Bowl.

But even when the system works, not everyone is satisfied.

Ohio State is left to make its feeble case to the media. Kansas State is left with a $1.1 million Alamo Bowl payout instead of the $11 million to $13 million it would have received from a BCS game.

And just imagine the outcry if Kansas State and UCLA had remained undefeated by winning their regular-season finales on Dec. 5 -- a day that offered a glimpse of the December delirium a playoff could deliver.

The computer-based BCS formula likely would have ranked Tennessee and UCLA 1-2, and Kansas State would have been eliminated from the national championship equation.

Such a scenario isn't that far-fetched -- three times since 1979, the regular season has produced three undefeated and untied teams. And if it happens again in the next three years, the BCS will look ridiculous.

The Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Alliance and now the BCS -- each moved the sport a step closer toward a true national champion. But none could provide the closure that a playoff would provide.

If you're not going to eliminate arguments, you might as well go back to the rigid bowl system. At least then the injustices weren't determined by a computer. And split national championships resulted in raucous debate.

Now, the debate is about as exciting as calculating tax returns -- the BCS rankings derive from the traditional polls, three computer ratings, a strength-of-schedule formula and number of losses.

And as recently as three days ago, a controversy seemed possible anyway.

Ohio State figured a convincing triumph over Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl plus a mediocre victory by Florida State in the Fiesta would give it a legitimate claim to No. 1.

But the Buckeyes failed to score in the second half of their 24-14 victory over A&M, a team that Florida State beat, 23-14, in its season opener with sophomore quarterback Chris Weinke making his first start.

Ohio State's one loss was a 28-24 clunker at home to 6-6 Michigan State on Nov. 7, a day on which they were favored by four touchdowns and led 24-9 early in the third quarter.

Florida State's one loss was a 24-7 clunker on the road to 7-5 North Carolina State on Sept. 12, a day in which Weinke threw six interceptions in his second career start.

The Seminoles have won 10 straight games. They played the nation's fourth-toughest schedule. They're worthy of this chance, even though it was created by other team's misfortunes.

Both Kansas State and UCLA wound up losing their final two games, including one to an unranked opponent. And even if Kansas State had remained unbeaten, it would have been criticized for playing only the 49th-toughest schedule.

A playoff would eliminate the strength-of-schedule argument -- a Kansas State would get its chance to play with the big boys. A playoff still might have resulted in Tennessee-Florida State, but at least the issue would be settled cleanly.

ISL, a Swiss company that markets soccer's World Cup, has proposed a 16-team playoff worth a projected $2.4 billion over eight years. The college presidents will never go for such a monstrosity, but they need to think seriously about an eight-team format.

The sport is fun. It can be even more fun, not to mention more lucrative, which is all anyone really cares about.

Bring on a playoff.

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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